Lincoln to Mrs. 0. H. Browning
I. N. Arnold to 0. H. Browning
0. H. Browning to I. N. Arnold ]
Limited to 150 copies
BARKER'S ART STORE, Springfield, Illinois
It has been said of Abraham Lincoln by those who knew
him intimately, that while he was naturally a sad man, no one
was quicker than he to see and enjoy the ridiculous in every-
thing. That he was fond of story telling, no one will deny, and
we are fortunate in having his own word for it, that he told
stories "not so much for the story itself, as for its purpose or
effect." But there were moments when he deliberately sought
diversion in story telling both for the relief it afforded him,
and for the entertainment it afforded his audience. My motive
in again putting in print Mr. Lincoln's humorous account of his
love affair with Mary Owen is not at all the publication of
the letter itself, but to afford an opportunity of giving to the
public two letters that have never before appeared in print,
and that fully explain how Mr. Lincoln came to write the story
to Mrs. Browning, at the same time exonerating him from any
blame for its publication. The three letters that follow were
at one time in my possession and I will vouch for their genuine-
ness in every particular. /
^ Lincoln to Mrs. Browning
Springfield, April 1, 1838.
Dear Madam : —
Without apologizing for being egotistical, I shall make the
history of sb much of my life as has elapsed since I saw you
the subject of this letter. And, by the way, I now discover
that, in order to give a full and intelligible account of the things
I have done and suffered since I saw you, I shall necessarily
have to relate some that happened before.
It was, then, in the autumn of 1836 that a married lady of
my acquaintance and who was a great friend of mine, being
about to pay a visit to her father and other relatives residing
in Kentucky, proposed to me that on her return she would bring
a sister of hers with her on condition that I would engage to
become her brother-in-law with all convenient despatch. I, of
course, accepted the proposal, for you know I could not have
done otherwise, had I really been averse to it; but privately,
between you and me I was most confoundedly well pleased with
the project. I had seen the said sister some three years before,
thought her intelligent and agreeable, and I saw no good objec-
tion to plodding life through hand in hand with her. Time
passed on, the lady took her journey, and in due time returned,
sister in company sure enough. This stomached* me a little;
for it appeared to me that her coming so readily showed that
she was a trifle too willing ; but, on reflection, it occurred to me
that she might have been prevailed on by her married sister to
come, without anything concerning me ever having been men-
tioned to her; and so I concluded that, if no other objection
presented itself, I would consent to waive this. All this oc-
curred to me on hearing of her arrival in the neighborhood ; for,
be it remembered, I had not yet seen her, except about three
years previous, as above mentioned. In a few days we had
an interview ; and, although I had seen her before, she did not
look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-
size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff. I knew
she was called an "old maid," and I felt no doubt of the truth
of at least half of the appellation ; but now, when I beheld her,
I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother ; and this,
not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat to
permit of its contracting into wrinkles, but from her want of
teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind
of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have com-
menced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in
less than thirty-five or forty years ; and, in short, I was not at
all pleased with her. But what could I do ? I had told her sis-
ter I would take her for better or for worse; and I made a
point of honor and conscience in all things to stick to my word,
especially if others had been induced to act on it, which in this
case I had no doubt they had ; for I was now fairly convinced
that no other man on earth would have her, and hence the con-
clusion that they were bent on holding me to my bargain.
"Well," thought I, "I have said it, and, be the consequences
what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it." At
once I determined to consider her my wife; and, this done, all
my powers of discovery were put to work in search of perfec-
tions in her which might be fairly set off against her defects.
I tried to imagine her handsome, which, but for her unfor-
tunate corpulency, was actually true. Exclusive of this, no
woman that I have ever seen has a finer face. I also tried to
convince myself that the mind was much more to be valued
than the person ; and in this she was not inferior, as I could
discover, to any with whom I had been acquainted.
Shortly after this, without coming to any positive under-
standing with her, I set out for Vandalia, when and where you
first saw me. During my stay there I had letters from her
which did not change my opinion of either her intellect or in-
tention, but on the contrary confirmed it in both.
All this while, although I was fixed, "firm as the surge-
repelling rock," in my resolution, I found I was continually re-
penting the rashness which had led me to make it. Through
life, I have been in no bondage, either real or imaginary, from
the thralldom of which I so much desired to be free. After my
return home, I saw nothing to change my opinion of her in any
particular. She was the same, and so was I. I now spent my
time in planning how I might get along through life after my
contemplated change of circumstances should have taken place,
and how I might procrastinate the evil day for a time, which I
really dreaded as much, perhaps more, than an Irishman does
After all my suffering upon this deeply interesting sub-
ject, here I am, wholly, unexpectedly, completely, out of the
"scrape" ; and now I want to know if you can guess how I got
out of it — out, clear, in every sense of the term ; no violation of
word, honor, or conscience. I don't believe you can guess, and
so I might as well tell you at once. As the lawyer says, it was
done in the manner following, to-wit : After I had delayed the
matter as long as I thought I could in honor do (which, by the
way, had brought me round into the last fall), I concluded I
might as well bring it to a consummation without further de-
lay ; and so I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to
her direct ; but, shocking to relate, she answered. No. At first
I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which
I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances
of her case ; but on my renewal of the charge, I found she re-
pelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again
and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same
want of success.
I finally was forced to give it up ; at which I very unex-
pectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. I
was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways.
My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection that I had
been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time
never doubting that I understood them perfectly ; and also that
she, whom I had taught myself to believe nobody else would
have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness.
And, to cap the whole, I then for the first time began to sus-
pect that I was really a little in love with her. But let it all
go. I'll try and outlive it. Others have been made fools of by
the girls ; but this can never with truth be said of me. I most
emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself. I have
now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying,
and for this reason : I can never be satisfied with any one who
would be blockhead enough to have me.
When you receive this, write me a long yarn about some-
thing to amuse me. Give my respects to Mr. Browning.
Your sincere friend,
Mrs. 0. H. Browning.
*The word "stomached" was misread by Lamon and printed in his
book to read "astonished," — a mistake that has been repeated in every
publication of the letter until this, when it is given exactly as Lincoln
wrote it.— H. E. B.
Arnold to Browning
Chicago, Nov. 22, 1872.
My Dear Mr. Browning :
I know your kind heart will rejoice to learn that I am
again under my own roof, seated by my own fireside.
I have just been looking over Lamons' book upon Mr.
Lincoln. Many things in it shock me, as I think they do every
true friend of Mr. Lincoln, when he calls him a "wily poli-
tician," "cold," "impassive," when he charges him with dis-
carding and forgetting his friends (p. 481), "unhospitable"
(482), "ungrateful selfish" (483), he states what in every in-
stance is untrue, but not only so, Lincoln possessed the very
opposite qualities. How could he charge him with irreverance
and infidelity when he remembers the sublime prayer with
which he left Springfield, and the deep religious feeling which
pervades all his writings and speeches to the day of his death ?
Do not you and I owe it to the memory of the dead to vindicate
him from these charges?
Most of his book, it seems to me is filled up with trival and
insignificant matters which only prurient curiosity would care
for and without any appreciation of the noblest traits of his
character. I have just been reading a letter to Mrs. Brown-
ing (pages 181-182) which he says it was an "extremely pain-
ful duty to publish." ■ If the letter is genuine I cannot conceive
the motives which made it his duty to publish it. If you feel
at liberty to tell me, I should be very glad to know the history
of this letter. Of course I should not use anything you may
write without your permission. I should be very glad if you
would write me fully in regard to Mr. Lincoln, as you knew him
at Vandalia, and Springfield and at Washington. You were
much with him, I remember, at the time of Willie's death.
Do you know what his religious views and feelings were then ?
I have been of the impression from some things which oc-
curred, that he was under very deep religious feelings. Do you
know whether the statement so generally made that he was
while at Washington, in the habit of prayer and frequent read-
ing of the Bible as a religious book, was true ?
I hope you may find time to write a full reply.
With kind regards to Mrs. Browning in which my family
join, I am.
Very truly yours,
Isaac N. Arnold.
Hon. 0. H. Browning.
Browning to Arnold
Quincy, 111., November 25, 1872.
I am just in receipt of yours of the 22nd instant. I have
carefully read the whole of Col. Lamons' life of Mr. Lincoln.
It contains many things which I regret to see in print. Admit-
ting them to be true, their publication, was, to say the least,
injudicious. Many things which are stated in the book were
not necessary to the elucidation, or full comprehension of Mr.
Lincoln's character, and should have been omitted. It is now
almost forty years since I first made his acquaintance. From
that time till his death our relations were very intimate. I
think more so than is usual. Our friendship was close, warm,
and, I believe sincere. I know mine for him was, and I never
had reason to distrust his for me. Our relations to my
knowledege were never interrupted for a moment. I can recall
no circumtsance in his life which would justify a suspicion of
treachery to his friends. Of his religious opinions I am not
able to speak. It is more than probable we have conversed
upon religious subjects ; but if we did, I am not able to call back
to my recollection anything which was said in such conversa-
tions, with such distinctness as to warrant me in repeating it.
He held a pew in the Presbyterian Church, of which Rev. Dr.
Gurley was pastor, and often attended service there. He not
infrequently sent his carriage, of Sunday mornings with a re-
quest that I would accompany him and Mrs. Lincoln to church.
Sometimes, after services were over, I would return with
them to the White House to dinner, and spend the afternoon
with him in the library. On such occasions I have seen him
reading the Bible, but never knew of his engaging in any other
act of devotion. He did not invoke a blessing at table, nor did
he have family prayers. What private religious devotions may
have been customary with him I do not know. I have no
knowledge of any.
At the time of his little son Willie's death, Mrs. Browning
and I were out of the city, but returned to Washington on the
evening of the same day of his death. The President and Mrs.
Lincoln sent their carriage for us immediately upon learning
that we were in the city, and we went to the White House, and
remained with them about a week. His son Tad was also very
ill at the time, and I watched with him several consecutive
nights. The President was in the room with me a portion of
He was in very deep distress at the loss of Willie, and
agitated with apprehensions of a fatal termination of Tad's
illness ; but what his religious views and feelings were I do not
know. I heard no expression of them. My impression is that,
during the time I remained at the White House on this occasion,
he had several interviews with the Rev. Dr. Gurley but what
occurred between them never came to my knowledge. Dr.
Gurley is now dead, and I am unable to say whether he left any
record of his conferences with the President.
I know that Mr. Lincoln was a firm believer in a superin-
tending and overruling Providence, and in super-natural
agencies and events. I know that he believed the d-estinies of
men were, or at least, that his own destiny was shaped and con-
trolled by an intelligence and power higher and greater than
his own, and which he could neither control nor thwart. To
what extent he believed in the revelations and miracles of
the Bible and Testament, or whether he believed in them at all,
I am not prepared to say ; but I do know that he was not a
scoffer at religion. During our long and intimate acquaintance
and intercourse I have no recollection of ever having heard an
irreverant word fall from his lips.
The letter published in the biography, purporting to have
been written to Mrs. Browning, is genuine. In the winter of
1836-7 we were all at Vandalia, then the seat of government of
the state. I was a member of the Senate and Mr. Lincoln of
the House of Representatives. He and I had been previously
acquainted, but he then first made the acquaintance of Mrs.
Browning. We all boarded at the same house. He was very
fond of Mrs. Browning's society, and spent many of his eve-
nings and much of his leisure time, at our rooms. We were all
there together again in the winter of 1837-8, the same rela-
tions subsisting between us as during the preceeding winter.
After our return home, in the spring of 1838 the letter in ques-
tion was received. We were very much amused with it, but
both Mrs. Browning and myself supposed it to be a fiction; a
creation of his brain ; one of his funny stories, without any
foundation of fact to sustain it. It was laid away, among
other letters, and forgotten. In 1861 I was overhauling a cor-
respondence which had been accumulating for years and de-
stroying many hundreds of letters which I regarded as no
longer of any value. This with other letters of Mr. Lincoln's
was then exhumed, and saved from the common fate, only be-
cause it was amusing and written a long time ago, in the very
characteristic style of the then President.
We permitted a few of our friends, both here and at
Washington, to see it, merely as a matter of curiosity and
amusement ; we still laboring under the impression that it was
I think it was in 1862 that a gentleman who was collecting
materials for a biography of Mr. Lincoln, having heard of this
letter, called on Mrs. Browning in the city and requested a copy.
She declined to give it. The first time she was at the Presi-
dent's, only a few days after, she informed him of the re-
quest that had been made and asked him what he had to say in
regard to it. She then first learned from him that the narrative
of the letter was not fiction but a true account of an incident in
actual life. He added that others of the actors than himself
were still living; that it might be painful to them to see the
letter in print ; and that on their account he desired it should
be withheld for the present ; but that hereafter, when those
most interested should have passed away, she might exercise
her own discretion. After the death of Mr. Lincoln one of his
most intimate friends, Col. Lamon, who was on confidential re-
lations with the President through the entire period of his ad-
ministration, was permitted at his earnest request, to take a
copy ; but upon the distinct understanding that it should never
be used in connection with Mrs. Browning's name. I do not
see how Mr. Lincoln can justly be censured for writing the let-
ter. It was written in the confidence of friendship, with no
purpose, or expectation, that it would ever become public. No
names were mentioned, nor was it likely that any other name
than his own would ever be known in connection with it. His
only object seemed to be to amuse a friend at his own expense.
No injury was done to anyone by the mere writing of the
letter, nor would there have been by its publication, unaccom-
panied by the explanation given by his biographer; and for
these Mr. Lincoln ought not to be held responsible.
Neither Mrs. Browning nor myself ever knew from him
who the lady referred to in the letter was. Of course neither
of us ever asked him, nor did he ever inform us. If the feel-
ings of others have been injured, I think it is chargeable upon
the biographer, and not upon Mr. Lincoln.
I am at present, much occupied with professional duties,
and have written you hastily, but have, I believe answered all
your inquiries as fully as I am now capable of doing. It gives
us great pleasure to hear that you are again comfortably set-
tled in your own home.
Mrs. Browning and Emma unite with me in kindest re-
gards to Mrs. Arnold, your daughters and yourself.
Truly your friend,
0. H. Browning.
Hon Isaac N. Arnold, \